Is Mental Causation a Problem?

Stephen Downes points to this review by Sara Worley in NotreDame Philosophical Review of the book ‘Mental Causation’ by Anthony Dardis, and he (Stephen) concludes with this:
“The main takeaway? This nice neat picture of ‘A causes B’ is deeply mistaken.”

Now I’m no philosopher, and I haven’t read the book, but I have to agree with Stephen on this. It has long seemed to me that even in the purely physical world the whole idea of cause and effect is just baby-talk. i.e. superstitious nonsense that has no real meaning beyond the question “What is a minimal subset of actual antecedents of B from which the eventual occurrence of B could have been deduced? (indefinite article intended since solution not necessarily unique).”

Once one accepts the nonuniqueness of “cause” and identifies it basically with “explanation”, the idea of mental events “causing” physical ones ceases to be problematic.

Regardless of whether or not a mental event has and/or is equivalent to a physical manifestation, the fact that, if I want to raise my hand, then, in the absence of disability, constraint, or other countervailing wishes, my hand will rise, means that my wish (in the stated context) can be said to have caused the movement(*). Using a purely physical explanation in terms of interacting neurons provides another cause, as does also perhaps a deeper analysis of my mental state immediately prior to the onset of the wish.

(*)even though, apparently, according to some studies, my awareness of the wish may actually follow the initiation of the motion!
(Such studies are often considered paradoxical, but perhaps they would seem less so if we consider that our awareness of a thought or impulse is not actually the thought itself but just a memory of it.)

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2 Responses to Is Mental Causation a Problem?

  1. Thanks for your comment! Hope you read the book!

    The reason mental causation is a problem is that there’s a minimal and scientifically preferable set of antecedents of anything you do, which is “purely physical,” namely, your physical characteristics. There doesn’t seem to be any need to bring in the fact that it’s you deciding what to do, or anything mental at all.

  2. alan says:

    I am not sure why a purely physical specification of the antecedents is “scientifically preferable”. There may have been be some ambiguity in my use of the word “minimal” since it could refer either to compactness of expression (which is more what I intended), or to some Ockhamic measure of expense in terms of prior concepts and assumptions. As an example I would consider an explanation of the collision of two billiard balls on the basis of the balls being “inelastic” at least as useful for many scientific purposes as one which went on to deduce the inelasticity from the detailed material structure of the balls (without any “assumption” of inelasticity). And similarly I might find it more useful to say that the balls’ inelasticity was “caused” by the intent of their maker to achieve that end than by the details of how she did so. But in fact what prompted my cheer to Stephen was his “main takeaway” about the inutility of the “nice neat picture”. On finally reading Sara’s review I see that your idea of “swatch laws” may provide something less silly, but at this point in my life I’m afraid I need persuading that any concept of “causation” is scientifically useful at all. If your book (or other material that you suggest) provides that, then I should like to read it.

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